Spain will take on Russia in Moscow this weekend for a place in the last eight of the World Cup and they will do so as strong favorites. However to progress they will have to overcome one or two demons from an international history that includes a long sequence of harrowing defeats against the host nation at major tournaments.
Indeed for all their recent glories, it’s a ghost that is yet to be properly exorcised. Spain haven’t faced the hosts since their Euro 2004 exit at the hands of Portugal. Their three straight titles between 2008 and 2012 saw them avoid banana-skin clashes against South Africa in Johannesburg or Poland in Warsaw, beating the cream of the crop on strictly neutral turf. It’s for that reason that many fans of La Roja would have gladly accepted the seemingly tougher task of a last sixteen tie with Uruguay in Sochi rather than the date with Russia in front of nearly 80,000 at the Luzhniki that now awaits them.
Spain’s struggles against the Host Nation
When it comes to the matter of exiting tournaments against the hosts, it’s safe to say Spain have form. Euro 2004 was their 18th appearance at a World Cup or European Championship and their loss to Portugal in the decisive final group game was the seventh time Spain had been directly eliminated by the home team. It’s a curse that has blighted just about every great side that Spain has produced through the ages and one that dates back to the very first tournament they entered in 1934.
Having beaten much-fancied Brazil, a strong Spanish side skippered by legendary goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora took on Italy in Florence for a place in the Semi-Finals of the first World Cup to be staged on European soil. The game went to Extra-Time and ended in a 1-1 draw but in the absence of penalty shoot-outs or any other meaningful tie-breaker, the sides simply returned the next day to play again. The second meeting saw the Azzurri secure the first of many World Cup clean sheets with a gritty 1-0 win that laid the foundations for not only the rest of a tournament they went onto win but set them on a path to become the defensive masters of world football. Spain meanwhile returned home despondent and the international football journeys of both nations may very well have panned out differently had the result gone the other way.
A combination of war at home and abroad ensured Spain wouldn’t return to the global stage until sixteen years later at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. By this time the personnel had changed with two Catalan brothers helpfully referred to as Gonzalvo II and Gonzalvo III providing some steel in midfield (Gonzalvo I was also a footballer but didn’t make the squad). The star though was the prolific Basque striker Telmo Zarra who netted in each of Spain’s three group games, all of which ended in victory to emphatically fire La Roja into the last four.
The tournament featured a peculiar and thankfully soon to be scrapped format whereby the destiny of the trophy would be determined by a final four-team group phase. Spain drew their opening game with Uruguay meaning they needed at least a point against hosts Brazil to remain in contention. However in front of a mammoth crowd of over 150,000 at the Maracanã, Spain were blown away by a rampant Brazilian side that fired in six goals to inflict on the Europeans what remains their heaviest World Cup defeat.
Suffering in the modern era
While they were crowned European champions on home soil in 1964, in the days when the finals tournament consisted of just four teams, Spain would spend the remainder of the 20th Century mostly cementing their reputation as one of international football’s great underachievers. Harsher critics, of which there were many at home, went further by brandishing them chokers and their inability to deal with the pressure of big games and particularly hostile home crowds became a recurring theme.
The Spain team of the 1980’s was particularly culpable. The excitement of hosting the World Cup for the first time soon fizzled out as La Roja won just one of their five matches at the 1982 tournament meaning the European Championship of 1984 offered something of a shot at redemption. Having scraped their way through to just a second major final, Spain again came unstuck against the host nation, losing 2-0 to a Michel Platini-inspired France in Paris. Four years later it was a defeat by the same margin against Germany in Munich that sent them packing from Euro 88. And the rare phenomenon of an English penalty shoot-out win kept them from European glory at Wembley in 1996.
Therefore the Spanish squad that headed to the Far East for the 2002 World Cup did so looking to make amends for decades of failures and perceived under-achievement. It was a squad that had a nice blend of youth and experience, not dissimilar from the 2018 one, with established performers such as current boss Fernando Hierro and Juan Carlos Valerón accompanied by the emerging talents of Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas and Joaquin.
However any notion that a new century and some new faces would bring about a change in fortune were soon abandoned. Spain did what they’d done many times before by impressing in the group phase only to succumb to the pressure of knock-out football. There was at least a penalty shoot-out win to celebrate as Hierro made up for his miss at Euro 96 by setting Spain on their way to a 3-2 victory over Ireland on penalties in the last sixteen. They went into their Quarter-Final with South Korea as strong favorites to finally defeat a host nation at a major tournament and advance to the last four of a World Cup for the first time since 1950.
Once again though, Spain failed to find the fluidity that had seen them breeze through the group stage as Gwangju roared South Korea on through 120 tense and ultimately goalless minutes. Five perfect Korean penalties later coupled with a miss from the youthful and by all accounts injured Joaquín, Spain had been dealt their cruelest and most perplexing World Cup exit as the Asian side made history by advancing to the Semi-Finals.
A Chance to Break the Curse
While a 1-0 defeat to Portugal two years later at Euro 2004 would see Spain exit yet another tournament at the hands of the hosts. The defeat in Korea stands above the rest as the biggest warning to Spain ahead of this Sunday’s showdown in Moscow. If history is anything to go by, the omens are about as positive as Spain’s performance against Morocco on Monday night.
That being said, if any generation is going to break the curse, it is surely this one. The Spain side that stumbled its way to a 2-2 draw against the North Africans included six members of the eleven that put in an era-defining performance by thumping Italy 4-0 in the Final of Euro 2012. They have already broken the mould and firmly banished the choker tag and a team packed with experience and decorated in both club and international honours ought to be able to cope with everything a raucous home crowd will throw at them in the Russian capital.
Whether they go onto win the trophy for a second time or not, the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta have the chance to deliver one final gift to the next generation by beating Russia and ending Spain’s harrowing run of defeats against host nations. Defeat though would only add further weight to the theory that La Roja have already slipped back into their bad old ways following a golden era where they were close to unbeatable.